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The Meaning of Evolution


Biological Evolution: Facts and Theories

We provide here an excerpt of a paper given by Jean-Michel Maldamé at a conference celebrating Darwin’s anniversary at the Pontifical Gregorian University in 2009. The text offers a wise perspective to let science, philosophy and theology fruitfully dialogue about the evolutionary view. The notions of creation, finality, realization, and salvation get central stage, along with the human being understood as the recapitulation of life history and diversity.   


The opposition to the theory of evolution illustrated by certain believers bears on this point: do we have to renounce continuity, in the name of the theology of creation? For unbelievers, it is symmetrically the opposite: is it possible to believe in creation, when one sees the continuity which exists in the tree of life? In order to be able to give an adequate answer, we must consider the concept of creation, which, unfortunately, is ambiguous: it is a source of misunderstandings, which originate in the vision of the world of those who use it.

The mechanistic vision of creation

Today, the usual meaning of the creation refers to the beginning of the world. For ordinary people, the creative act consists in the production of the various elements which constitute the world and their arrangement into an optimal, well ordered system, like a well conceived and well regulated machine. God has given an initial impulse to this mechanism and set it in motion, and ever since, everything happens according to the laws of nature. The act of creation proper is limited to this single first instant. It is in this sense that the first words of Genesis are understood, when translated by “In the beginning”, whereas the Hebrew term berechit and the Greek term archè have a richer metaphysical dimension.

Such a conception of creation seems to me to be at the root of all the present difficulties, either to base materialism, or to motivate the rejection of the theory of evolution by certain believers. In order to find a way out, we must try to draw a line between “beginning” and “origin”.

Beginning and origin

1. The term: “beginning” designates the very first instant in the duration of a phenomenon, contrary to the word “origin”, which refers to ontological or metaphysical realities. The origin deals with the constituent condition of all that appears in the course of an event. It refers to an act which cannot be isolated inside the series of events which form the web of transformations. It is not objectively verifiable through a measuring system or through a physical-chemical representation.

To speak about the origin, is to speak about an act which is not limited to one specific moment in time. The origin must not be mistaken for the beginning. To speak about the beginning is to acknowledge something new and therefore to distinguish between what was before and what is now. It means establishing a difference in time, conceived as an ongoing, continuous experience. The origin does not confine us to one single instant in time. It is not one occurrence among others, but it is the constituting condition of all that is, at every moment, in the course of events which have happened in the time-space continuum. The origin cannot be adequately circumscribed to a scientific theory.

This distinction between origin and beginning is quite clear, on the conceptual level. Unfortunately, such is not the case for many people, because everyday language confuses the two terms. There is a reason for this: the origin seems to be clearer in the beginning, since it is the moment when “being” begins. The use of the word is ambiguous, and therefore one should be very careful, and aware of the fact that people often use one word for the other.

2. The search for the origin is beyond the scope of the scientific method. It rather pertains to the philosopher’s field. The philosopher wonders about new occurrences in a different framework of thought. Science only takes into consideration the transformations of energy. The philosopher wonders about the reason why such transformations exist. He asks questions about the very existence of life and the universe. His approach is of a different order than that of the scientist.

a. Is such a question legitimate? It could be said that it reaches beyond the limits of the human mind and therefore is unable to access a reliable form of knowledge. One could also consider that it does make sense, and that trying to find an answer to it is legitimate.

b. In such a case, the interrogation can go on: what is the reason for the existence of living objects? Not such or such a one — but the sheer reason for just being there? One takes then a metaphysical road.

Such a question could be answered by saying that life is self-sufficient and that it is its own raison d’être. It exists by itself, is in itself its own justification. The universe then becomes an absolute and words like Life and Nature are written with capital initial letters. One could observe, on the other hand, that the course of the history of life is of such a nature, that its subject cannot be made into an absolute: it must therefore be referred to something other than itself, which alone is an absolute, which lies beyond and outside the space-time continuum and is transcendent. Philosophers call him God, using a language common to the philosophical heritage as illustrated by Plato and Aristotle, and to monotheistic religions.

c. In such a perspective, one acknowledges that the existence of the universe is due to the action of God. Philosophers also use the term “creation” to designate the act through which God calls into being the universe, which is other than himself: such a gift is coextensive to the duration of the course of ages, as experienced by us in the present time.

d. The word “intervention” seems inappropriate. Its use is responsible for the current difficulties, which are three in number. First, the awkwardness of the discourse held by many Christians (among whom many priests) who use this word without explaining it; secondly, the agnostic or materialistic rejection of all references to a causality which unbelievers place at the same ontological level; lastly, the deficiencies of apologetic, which resorts to ignorance in order to appeal to a special action of God.

To get round those ambiguities, one should now try to clarify the way in which the orders of action assemble themselves in a process which implies several actors. This point is essential to show not only that creation and evolution can be reconciled, but that it is imperative to conciliate them.

Cooperation and synergy

The distinction I have introduced between beginning and origin enables us to understand why science and metaphysics, here complying with monotheistic theology, can allow for their differences and, at the same time, not ignore each other.

1. Creation lies at a different level of causality than the act of transformation. It is therefore important to link up the orders of causality. The reference to the action of God during the process should not be understood as an interaction. In an interaction in physics, chemistry or biology, the active elements are of the same order and work together, for just as in classical mechanics, forces combine with one another. Only the action of God is able to join some other action without modifying it and, a fortiori, without altering it.

The classical image which makes it possible to understand this is that of music. In a piece of music, everything is produced by the instrument and everything is produced by the musician who plays that instrument. All that is heard, is the result of both the instrument and the musician, without it being possible to separate what belongs to one or the other. Such a union, which in no way alters the principles of action (the musician and his instrument), is made possible because there is a difference of nature between those who act as musicians, and the instruments. This image enables us to understand what takes place in life, which is, at the same time, the result of the action of factors studied by the sciences of nature and anthropology, and of a transcendent principle. Because this principle is of a different order, and because it does not intervene as an element of the world, one must acknowledge that everything is of God, and everything is of nature. By reason of his transcendence, God can act without distorting the laws of nature. The usual difficulties that arise on the subject are caused by the fact that we think of God as an architect who transforms a given reality. God’s action consists in giving to beings the ability to be what they are.

2. The notion of creation then appears in its metaphysical dimension, as a reply to the question of the origin. It is in no way a means of getting round the inadequacies of scientific knowledge. On the contrary, it receives support from that knowledge. It witnesses the temporal development of an action carried by a being who is distinct from others. Thus supported by the theory of evolution, by a judgment which has to do with philosophy, the human mind acknowledges in the course of life the action of a principle which addresses the question of the origin. The notion of creation, thus analyzed, does not come under the heading of the search for a beginning, but is a matter for appraisal for the present. Creation is not an act of the past; it is the current relation between the Creator with all that exists. Natural theology had fostered a conception of God as one factor among others — the first one.

To say that everything is of nature, and everything is of God, is a liberating experience, since the two species of causality are not exclusive one of the other. The action of God consists in giving to beings the ability of being what they are. By bestowing being upon them, God gives them the ability to act according to their own nature — let us remember that the word nature is not static.

3. The assertion of God’s action in the course of evolution no longer looks like it may have looked in the positivistic age. It was looked upon as a violence, or as a trick played by the Almighty, apparently bent on the realization of some purpose outside nature. What has been said shows, on the contrary, that the action of God is the realization of nature’s wishes. The creating action takes everything to its culminating point. The theory of evolution shows in what area the creative action develops. It opens on the question of meaning.

The meaning of evolution

The question of finality is at the heart of the debates between the theology of creation and the theory of evolution. Is it possible to address it? In order to do so, one must draw a clear line between teleonomy and teleology. As a matter of fact, ever since mathematics has been used in science, the Aristotelian notion of finality has needed to be made more accurate by differentiating between “finality” in the full sense of the word, i.e. “teleology”, and “finality” used in a restricted sense, i.e. “teleonomy”.

The levels of being

The term “teleonomy” is used in biology; it refers to the construction of life in its autonomy and its unity. For clarity’s sake, it is important to specify that the use of this word does not have the same scope, depending on how scientists look at their work. In order to make things easier to understand, one should underline the difference that exists between various conceptions of life — starting with what is privileged in scientific studies: the gene, the individual, the group or life considered as a whole.

1. The first option consists in laying stress on the gene — it is the thesis defended by Richard Dawkins. Since the individual who reproduces himself is de- fined and characterized by his genes, that author considers genes as the main actors in the history of life. It follows that organisms are there in order to allow genes to carry on their journey through time, by passing from one generation to another. The aim of each generation is to optimize the abilities of genes which gather together, in order to have the best chances to deal with the difficulties and constraints caused by the environment. The organism is the instrument of this struggle for life, whose subject is the gene.

2. Another option, diametrically opposite, considers a group, or a population. In which case, the behavior of the individual is subservient to the group. He takes advantage of his aptitudes for the benefit of the group. As a matter of fact, closely-knit societies, or those which are best integrated, are more likely to resist aggressions, more likely to adapt and therefore evolve through ages. It may happen that the individual does not develop all his possibilities, abdicating them for the advantage of the group. This can be observed in the behavior of animals which live in collectivities, like the colonies of bees, where the workers curb their potential activities.

3. Between these extreme positions, others favor the individual, considered as a strong unit integrating elements which are the constituents of life at all levels, starting with the biochemical elements, down to behavioral dispositions. Selection deals with individuals, not their genes or the group to which they belong. This diversity of views originates in an option which is philosophical in nature: if science places itself in the perspective of a study of functions, and if it is legitimate to favor such or such function, it is important to acknowledge that such a choice is linked to a philosophical approach, therefore to political, social, or moral options. The Christian notion of “person” can then legitimately come into the debate.

A transcendent Creator

Within the scope of the metaphysical option, which acknowledges the existence of a transcendent creative principle, the use of the concept of “teleology” is welcome. The notion of creation is in harmony with the results of science to suggest a divine design. Such an expression has the merit of acknowledging the importance of evolution in the history of life on planet Earth, and opens up other perspectives, like extra-terrestrial life, biogenesis coextensive to cosmogenesis, etc.

It is important to observe that acknowledging the transcendence of the creative principle implies two assertions: in the first place, because this principle is transcendent, it does not distort the laws of nature which it posits. In the second place, the acknowledgement of the action of the Creator is conveyed in a philosophical language, which transposes what is understood by human action. This conceptualization when it occurs does not leave the concepts in the same register of language. The use of terms coming from human experience needs to be amended. The words are legitimate, but their use must not lead to ignore the fact that language must host moments of negation. To say that God is the Creator implies that one leans on the human experience of production, but at the same time one admits that such a production is of a different order: the “starting from nothing” (ex nihilo) of the traditional formula is that negative moment. Similarly, to speak of a divine design, according to the image of an architect’s work, needs to be corrected by negations bearing on the modalities of the action. The meaning of transcendence necessarily implies the reference to a negation, which is present at the very heart of the assertion. The apologetics which uses terms describing a divine intervention to make up for the inadequacies of the scientific theory, and the intense religious considerations share in the same misconception: they misjudge the status of the theological language.

The design of God

At the end of this critical survey, we have reached a crucial point: the road to reason is adventurous, because the field of human knowledge is endlessly progressing.

The starting point for reflection

Experiencing the world through the senses does not simply consist in an immediate capture of the world. It opens up to a comprehensive perception of events and individual facts, which are part of a global vision. The observation of life does not consist in just storing up curiosities, it encourages the observer to build up the image of the great tree of life where branches, orders, families, species and varieties spread out, according to the structural order of their aptitudes. A history then appears, where mankind occupies a singular place. Thus life appears like a successful combination, arousing a feeling of admiration, perhaps even of wonder. This is the point where our reflection takes its root.

Each individual endeavors to reach perfection by giving to his potential an optimum actualization. This could be called “first love”. Or one could more simply use the word “dynamism”, in accordance with an analogy borrowed from the world of physics, but also present at every ontological level. For a scientific observer, life is a tension towards the best realization of each and every one. The tree of evolution illustrates the ascent towards a greater internal unity, and its widening out emphasizes the spreading display of varied forms. Such a dynamism is uppermost in the minds of human beings. It then takes on a new name, and is called “desire”. The word has been used by medical doctors and psychologists, bent on the study of the physical and psychological reality of human beings. The roots of desire reach far beyond the level of clear consciousness. Such a desire opens up and flourishes in language, which is a structuring element of the human species, since it is at the same time the reflection, and the engine of the process of humanization. Language is a reflection, because it establishes the irreducible difference from other animals; it is an engine, because it produces the culture where human nature reaches its full realization. Language is then the engine of thought, where what is expressed becomes ideas.

Mankind thus belongs to a long history. Its apparition is not, as traditionalists believe, the infusion of an immortal soul into a pre-human body, but rather a global development, since the ancestors of mankind — whose history is told through an extension of the customs of the populations close to homo sapiens — also have their own cultural elements. Mankind is thus placed inside a long history which encompasses it and, by comparison, its specific nature reveals itself as what should strictly be described as “the emergence of the soul”. Evolution, therefore, is also a “history of the soul”, it does not deal only with matter — as the spiritual dualism used by the apologetic unfortunately claims.

The history of salvation and evolution

Theologians illustrate these views by resorting to two essential categories. The first category lies at the heart of the Gospel, it deals with the concept of realization; the second one is right at the center of the theological renewal consecrated by the Second Vatican Council, the history of salvation.

1. One can speak of “realization”, when what was latent and concealed, in a rough state or in a state of great dispersion, becomes unified. It is, in the full meaning of the word, a recapitulation. The word, as a matter of fact, comes from the art of rhetoric. There, the orator, after having set out the various elements of the case, or of the issue, he is addressing, proceeds with giving a synthesis of his talk. The audience have in mind the elements, they have followed the rigour of the presentation. Recapitulation consists in repeating the argument in a global formula, which is all the clearer as it is brief. It can therefore be said that the human being, positioned as he is on the great tree of life, recapitulates it; which means that all that is found among other living objects is found in him, but that these elements have all changed, because they are part of his unity. The human being is not only at the top of the tree of life, as was claimed in Darwin’s days; he is not only the ultimate point, as Bergson or Teilhard de Chardin believed; we see him as the recapitulation of all that can be found in the diversity of living objects. Such a recapitulation is not only a juxtaposition: it is an accomplishment, in the sense that all that is taken up has a dimension which verges on infinity.

2. The theological notion of “history of salvation” can be useful here. It takes root in the Biblical Texts. In the elaboration of such a vast corpus, one can see how the history of a kingdom centered around Jerusalem has widened to include first the cultural journey from Egypt to Mesopotamia revolving on the Law, then the history of a large crowd of people obsessed with the figures of the patriarchs Abraham or Jacob, and also the destiny of mankind as a whole, captured in its patriarchs or emblematic figures, like Adam, Cain, Noah, thus laying the foundations of a universal history of mankind. This unity operates through the acknowledgement of an action of God, the unique, transcendent master of time and worlds. Can this notion of “history of salvation” — which is not, in any way, a sacred history, but the history of mankind falling the prey to every possible distress as the reverse side of its grandeur — can this notion be used in the perspective of science enlightened by the theory of evolution? Yes, it can! Because every beginning is linked to what has come before, to what has conditioned or caused it to happen. So that, the millions of years of the history of life can be seen in the eyes of faith, and be made into a history led by God, realizing His design.

3. In this perspective, it is possible to consider the place occupied by human beings as eminent, a place which can be described as pivotal. It is not static, as in the spiritual tradition, which locates the spirit outside time, but dynamic. The word “pivotal” refers to a direction, the determination of which depends on intellectual choices. If one favors such or such other principle, the direction of the axis will vary. The Christian faith leads one to opt for the pivotal direction of mankind. The presence of mankind has in times past been shown in biblical texts written some three thousand years ago, in a context completely different from today’s context; it is obviously linked to the justification of Neolithic culture which arose in the Near East. It is impossible to adopt it in a literal sense as the fundamentalists insist on doing. But it can be revisited. On the one hand, it is quite clear that human beings are the most complex creatures among all others; on the other hand, they are capable of reflection and their nature is a cultural nature. Thus, scientific knowledge is not denied; on the contrary, it is made legitimate, since it is a decisive instrument in answering the questions emblematically inscribed by Gauguin at the end of his quest for absolute happiness: “Who are we? Whence do we come? Whither are we going?” or, in philosophical terms, what are the origin, and the end.

The grandeur of man

This global perspective invites us to re-examine our understanding of God’s design. By placing the human being at the center of language and communication in human societies, speech has become the unquestionable objective criterion to state what the essence of man is. Speech is then given to be heard in its full rich- ness. It is not only an instrument to convey or transfer information — like animal languages: it establishes a relationship with the other, it is a call, an act of listening, which structures the subject. A specific dimension opens up. The human being is not only a force in the process of evolution according to its own dynamism. He is a responding being. He is a responsible being, not only in the moral or legal sense of the word, but, more radically, at the ontological level.

It then appears, for the believer, that being human means answering the call of the other. The “other” can be him who manifests himself through the Alliance, according to the famous expression used by Pascal in his Memorial, “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, not the God of the philosophers and scientists”, the God who calls and to whom the believer answers. To enter this perspective is not substantiating a fixed vision of nature, but on the contrary realizing that it is better understood when inscribed in a relation where the call is the decisive moment. The action of God is not seen as that of a dominating master sitting at the top of his eternity, seeing and foreseeing everything in an absolute, infallible manner, but on the contrary as that of one who respects the order he has created and which establishes a nature. God is not one who uses cunning in order to reign over the world without the world knowing. God is the one who calls. He attracts us, appeals to us and his appeal creates an area of liberty. The better we reply to his appeal, the larger the area of liberty becomes. To be human, is to answer the call: the call of mankind, where solidarity, communication, responsibility are concerned. But also, the call of the Creator conveyed by human mediations in the course of history, therefore in a temporality which has a founding quality. All this enables us to acknowledge the reference to “a special action of God” (as Pope Benedict XVI recalled, in his address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, November 1st, 2008) without using the word “intervention”, in order to respect the wisdom of God, who uses the laws of nature to do his work.

The notion of revelation is not thought of, as it is in the fixist theology, as an opposition, or exception, to the natural processes discovered by scientific reasoning, but as the realization of the fundamental urge for truth inscribed in human nature. The call of God is not part of a series of other calls, but the root of all calls. Fanaticism, sectarianism and dogmatism are the consequences of our forgetting this dimension.

Theological conclusion: The Holy Ghost as Creator

The notion of creation conveys those riches in the theological tradition, which asks questions about the whys and wherefores of the world. It is not enough for the believer to say that the world was created by God: he must know why God has created the world. The traditional answer runs against a tradition according to which creation is a necessity. The monotheistic tradition challenges this perspective, which implies an ontological poverty of the divine being inscribed in the necessity of its evolution. The reason for the creating act is not the result of a need, but the product of his generosity. God does not need to create: He does so out of love. The verb to love is here understood as meaning to wish other people’s welfare. Love is then the key word which illuminates life. It designates the energy which lies at the root of the great tree of life. With an even stronger energy, the Christian tradition challenges the gnostic, or Manichaean temptation, which sees in the material world the result of a fall.

The God of the Christian faith is not that of deism, not even that of theism. The traditional reading of the Bible has been able to find these words in the first verse of Genesis, where God acts through His word, and creates a world over which hovers His Spirit. The verb which conveys the action of the Spirit (the breath of God) designates the movement of a bird fluttering about (merahephet) over its nest (root: rhp): it is a protecting presence, not weighing heavily over it; it brings nourishment and is an incitement to flight. Thus, our vision of the tree of life is not one where we would try to introduce divine interventions, but on the contrary to look for its trace in the dynamism of life. The Spirit of God, who is God himself, is at work in a spiritual manner. He animates, stimulates, educates, protects, guards, vivifies.

The attention paid to the experience of the Spirit by Christians since Pentecost is usually reserved for mystical studies. But the personal action of the Spirit is not limited to mystics. I think it can be extended to the whole creation, and more particularly to the living. It is thus appropriate to develop an important element of Christian theology: the personal role played by the Holy Ghost in creation, and in leading the history of salvation towards its full realization.

J.-M. Maldamé, “The various meanings of the word evolution in science, philosophy and theology”, in G. Auletta, M. Leclerc, R.A. Martínez, Biological Evolution: Facts and Theories. A Critical Appraisal 150 Years after “The Origin of Species” (Rome: G&B Press, 2011), pp. 557-71.